Print Friendly and PDF

Friday, June 1, 2018

Metaphysics. Ontology; Part 2: Ontological Pluralism

The Fairy Who Was Kissed by the Piskies by Brian Froud.

This post is a part of the online book Philosophical Counseling with Tolkien.

So, I make a distinction between the metaphysical identification of the ultimately realm of reality (the Wholeness; or the form of consciousness) - and the content of consciousness. The metaphysical identification of the ultimately realm of reality I call metaphysical naturalism, as we already have investigated.

The metaphysical identification of the content of consciousness (or the content of reality) I call metaphysical pluralism.

Metaphysical pluralism in philosophy is the multiplicity of metaphysical models of the structure and content of reality, both as it appears and as logic dictates that it might be, as is, for example, exhibited by the four related models in Plato's Republic and as developed in the contrast between idealism and materialism. The logic necessary in order to establish unambiguous descriptions of these models is clearly seen in the above-mentioned Core in everyday language which I will return to in the chapter on Epistemology.

Within these models is the more restricted sub-fields of ontological pluralism (that examines, and describes, what exists in each of these realms). Ontological pluralism deals with the methodology for establishing knowledge about these realms.

Before we go further into Tolkien I will just mention my pop culture file on The X-Files where I suggest that this philosophical method is pretty much Mulder´s method as well (my pop culture files is a way of illustrating otherwise difficult philosophical ideas). The intention is to show how ontological pluralism can be used on the claim that “there is more things in heaven and earth (i.e., in reality) than are dreamed of in your philosophies (i.e., in thought).”

Mulder can seem like a materialist since many of the X-Files do have materialist explanations for, for example the Moth Men who evolved green skin camouflage for life in the Everglades in “Detour,” and Big Blue, the lake monster in “Quagmire,” and the aggressive parasite in “Ice,” and the Neanderthal-like woman in “Jersey devil,” and a man-like creature that comes out of hiding every thirty years to feed on human livers in “Tooms,” and a teenager possessing a proboscis and an insatiable appetite for humans brains in “Hungry.”

While far-fetched, all these X-Files have explanations falling roughly within the parameters of evolutionary theory, a complete materialist theory. And let´s face it, the material world does have some pretty weird stuff that doesn´t qualify as immaterial or paranormal in any way. African frogs change sex spontaneously, elephants mourn their dead, time stops at the speed of light, and causality breaks down at the quantum mechanical level of reality (though this actually is a scientific grounded invalidation of materialism). The material world can seem like an X-File!

So, is Mulder a materialist? Well, not exactly. Because there are also plenty of examples of Mulder believing in things falling far outside materialist explanations. For example, in “Shapes,” Mulder investigates a case on a Native American reservation that resembles the very first X-File, a human who shape-shifts into an animal to attack other animals and humans.

An elder tribesman explains that the Manitou, an evil spirit, inhabits a person periodically to release its own savage energy causing the shape-shifting, and Mulder accepts this story. And in “Avatar” Mulder explains Agent Skinner´s visitation from a ghostly woman as a succubus who warns him of danger. Then in “Calasari” a still-born brother returns to haunt his living twin, and Mulder ends up asking the grandmother´s Romanian priest to perform rituals in order to subdue the spirit and free the child.

Mulder again uses immaterialist explanations in investigating a man who survives virtually countless near-death experiences simply because he is genuinely “lucky,” the one man on Earth with almost perfect luck (“The Goldberg Variations”). Mulder also accepts the power of religious snake-handling (“Signs and Wonders”), and voodoo (“Theef”), and even genies (“Je Souhaite”).

In these episodes Mulder makes no attempt to bring these theories “down to Earth” with a more materialist explanation. There simply are no materialist explanations for things like shape-shifting, luck, voodoo, genies, and ghosts, in terms of electrons and quarks. Yet, Mulder is happy to accept such immaterialist entities. So, Mulder can´t be a materialist if he uses idealist explanations.

Is Mulder an idealist then? While idealists do not typically take on the topics of ghosts and avatars, this is the metaphysical worldview that admits the reality of immaterial objects, like minds, ideas, and free will. But since Mulder uses both materialist and immaterialist explanations, we have to look at a third option, a metaphysics that combines the two.

Some philosophers say that we don´t have to decide between either materialism or idealism. Instead they argue for the before-mentioned ontological pluralism admitting that reality is made up of many different kinds of things. For example, there are particular beings, such as Bob Dylan and Socrates and Barack Obama, and there may also be things like the color red, the number two, and the world of Alice in Wonderland (see my pop culture file Alice in Wonderland), and weather systems and foreign policy and moral laws, and the way we eat a lobster.

And all these different things can be real, but they may not fit into one neat ontological category like “material beings” or “immaterial beings,” and may not fit into one neat scientific theory like quantum mechanics or relativity theory.

We may be stuck saying that the world is pluralistic, and, what´s more, we may have to appeal to many different explanations in order to make sense of our very real and everyday complex world. This view has the difficulty of explaining how all these things interact, but most pluralists simply accept this problem rather than accepting the absurdity of the other two metaphysical worldviews that deny the existence of either material or immaterial things.

The history of pluralism is long and includes Aristotle who famously claimed that “being is said in many ways” and gave ten categories of being, as well as Descartes who argued that mind and matter are two distinct substances, neither of which is prior.

Now doesn´t this sound like the view Mulder holds? He doesn´t try to fit the evidence into either a materialist or idealist metaphysics, but he´s willing to follow the evidence and let it suggest what explanation might be called for. Many different metaphysical possibilities are open to Mulder because he is not concerned about how they all reduce to one ontological stuff.

Viewers are used to thinking of Scully as the scientist and Mulder as not so scientific. But these days ontological pluralism comes with support from science as well. Philosophers like Nancy Cartwright in The Dappled World and John Dupré in The Disorder of Things, both members of the Stanford School of the Philosophy of Science, known for its pluralistic approach to metaphysics and science, have argued for scientific and ontological pluralism. These philosophers probably aren´t going to buy into the existence of ghosts and the transmigration of souls, like Mulder, but they would probably agree with Mulder´s insistence that the laws of physics don´t apply as often as we would like to think.

After all, we appeal to many different successful sciences to explain our own complex reality. For example, we might appeal to social forces when talking about things like marriage and child rearing practices, and economic forces when talking about employment rates, and biological explanations when trying to understand reproductive patterns in insects and psychological explanations when trying to explain the mind of a serial killer. Reductionism is when you try to reduce everything to just one kind of reality. Both materialism and idealism are reductionisms (idealists are today often promoting their ideas as science, such a Rupert Sheldrake, Bruce Lipton, Gregg Braden, Robert Lanza, etc., etc.).

As Patrick Suppes, another member of the Stanford School of the Philosophy of Science, has argued, science has become increasingly complex over time, increasingly specialized, and increasingly pluralistic: in other words, we are getting farther and farther away from the view that one science can unify all the others. And the fact that there is not likely to be just one simple scientific theory to explain everything suggests that the world itself must be really be made up of lots of different kinds of things. In my article Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Niels Bohr, I have explained, with support from Bohr´s philosophy, that one Theory of Everything isn´t possible because you can´t describe the Wholeness.

Note that ontological pluralism hasn´t anything to do with relativism. Relativism is essential about language, and in the most extreme forms, idealist, in which it claims that there is no reality outside our language and ideas. Reality is a linguistic construct. Ontological pluralism is essentially about different kinds of reality. Just because you only are able to see an elephant from certain angles, this doesn´t make the elephant unreal. It doesn´t make the elephant into an illusion. But that´s what relativism claims. Relativism says that each person or group of people defines their own truth, establishes their own ethics, and chooses their own values, and since you can´t see the elephant in its Wholeness, none of those truths, ethics, or values are inherently any more true, ethical, or valuable than any others. Relativism would for example not allow that an investigation could show something to be false, or that you could reach an experience of the Wholeness. Relativism is essentially both anti-scientific and anti-spiritual. The enormous failure of New Age is therefore its support of relativism and idealism.

My own notion of the ultimate reality, the Wholeness, and the epistemological dualism we all must use in the same way in order to obtain unambiguous description of the different kinds of reality within the Wholeness, both suggests that truth is universal and absolute, and that the absolute in the end is undescribable. You can only describe something in relation to its negation. The Wholeness can´t be put in opposition to anything, and is therefore undescribable. It is the Tao.

This pluralistic and scientific ontology is precisely what Mulder holds, and it allows him to see things that others don´t see. Very often a person´s metaphysics more than evidence serves as her guide to choosing beliefs and theories to consider. This isn´t a bad thing, unless her metaphysics is bad. For example, if someone is a materialist, she isn´t going to entertain the possibilities of ghosts, telepathy, mind control, God, or angels. Her metaphysics prohibits her from even considering those things as possibilities. We have already looked at this. The metaphysics you have chosen (and you have chosen one, no matter whether you know it or not) completely decides how you live, experience and act in life.

Mulder´s pluralist metaphysics allows him to entertain possibilities others do not, and this in turn allows him to do fantastic detective work, while Scully´s too often reductionist and materialist philosophy shuts her off from different parts of reality for which there is good evidence. In other words, Scully´s metaphysics often does the work of rejecting theories even before she considers the evidence.

But while Mulder´s pluralistic metaphysics allows him to see possibilities, he has way more work to do in shifting through different possibilities. His more open metaphysics doesn´t do the work of rejecting theories for him. And Mulder does reject plenty of theories, both mainstream scientific, and paranormal.

In “All Things” Mulder checks out a crop circle case in England only to learn that it is a hoax. In “Clyde Bruckman´s Final Repose” Mulder rejects the phony celebrity psychic The Stupendous Yappi, but Mulder accepts this actual precognitive ability to see people´s future deaths in the aptly-professioned life insurance salesman Clyde Bruckman (Peter Boyle). Mulder is also critical of Scully´s sister Melissa (Melinda McGraw), who uses New Age techniques like crystals and theories about negative and positive energy in trying to communicate with Scully in her coma.

As Dupré argues, pluralism requires a set of virtues and good judgments rather than a simple, one-size-fits-all formula to decide which theories to accept. And this is just what Mulder has, namely, good judgment – amazingly good judgment. Mulder´s metaphysics is so open that he has to do the work of looking at the facts rather than appealing to one neat worldview to “decide” for him. In other words, Mulder has to do the work of a real scientist.

From the “Pilot” episode onwards in The X-Files, we see Mulder´s pluralistic metaphysics clash with Scully´s unified metaphysics, and it is always Mulder´s metaphysics that can handle the cases. The apparent choice between materialism and idealism is really a false choice, and Mulder, like todays´s pluralist philosophers of science, actually holds the position of ontological pluralism.

There really are many different kinds of beings in the world, not just in world of the X-Files, but also in our own world as well.

As mentioned: Tolkien himself tells us that he felt, when creating The Lord of the Rings, as we feel in reading it: that it was discovered, not invented, that it had always been there. Tolkien, as a Christian, was of course a supernaturalist. As we shall see when we treat the topic of religion, Tolkien kept the supernatural hidden in The Lord of the Rings; yet it is ubiquitous, and he himself explicity told us so.

Tolkien claims that fantasy naturally treats the supernatural:

[F]airy-stories as a whole have three faces: the Mystical towards the Supernatural, the Magical towards Nature, and the Mirror of scorn and pity towards Man (“On Fairy-Stories”, p. 26).

Fantasy treats the supernatural not because it is fantastic but because it is real. The capacity to evoke wonder, which is the great power of fantasy, almost requires supernaturalism. As Kreeft says, then it is inconceivable that a worldly pragmatist like John Dewey or Karl Marx could write fantasy. Only a supernaturalistic metaphysics has room for it. It says that our world has edges, that it is not all there is, that there is more. In such a world you can never say, with the bored, jaded author of Ecclesiastes, “I have seen everything” (Eccles 1:14).

In Tolkien´s Silmarillion the world is flat (until its fall) and therefore has an edge. Kreeft says that a flat world is a physical symbol for a supernaturalistic metaphysics. It points to a “beyond” its edges, a “more”. But a round world is self-contained, and absolute relative. In The Silmarillion the world is changed from flat to round as a divine punishment. This is far from fantastic; it is symbolically quite accurate. For, in fact, the divine punishment was that our worldview, rather than our world, was changed from supernaturalism to naturalism.

Yet one edge, one absolute, remains even in our round, relative world, though not in time and space but in time. There is death, personal time´s absolute edge. I will return to that.

Supernaturalism´s practical payoff is the hope of divine grace. Grace is needed because evil is powerful. We are far too weak to have much hope without it. Frodo is wise because he knows this. The whole of Middle-earth – souls as well as bodies – depends on his mission, and he knows he is not strong enough to fulfill it. Yet, because of an implicit trust in grace, he volunteers: “I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way” (LOTR, p. 264). Kreeft calls this a Marian moment. St. Luke showed us the same thing at the Annunciation. Mary´s mission was strikingly similar to Frodo´s. The salvation of the whole world depended on it. And the words of her acceptance of her mission were also similar to Frodo´s: “Let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).

Neither Tolkien nor St. Luke tells us what invisible force in the soul motivated this visible choice. But there are only two possibilities: pride or humility. When we hear “I will take the ring”, we may think we hear pride, but when we hear “though I do not know the way”, we know we hear humility. Tolkien kept explicit religion out of The Lord of the Rings, but here is a powerful example of implicit religion. No one but an arrogant fool could do what Frodo did without throwing an anchor out in the deep of supernatural grace.

When students begin to study the history of philosophy, starting with the ancient Greeks, they are always fascinated with Plato, for two reasons, Kreeft explains. One is that Plato is not only the best writer in the history of philosophy. But the other reason is his most distinctive doctrine: Platonic Ideas or Platonic forms, essences, or archetypes. Platonic archetypes must not be confused with Jungian archetypes as they all the time are due to the reductionism of psychologism. The difference is crucial. Jungian archetypes are subjective realms while Platonic archetypes are objective realms; that is: they are external forces beyond the personal and collective consciousness. Jung´s archetypes are in that way a reductionism of Plato´s archetypes.

The theory discombobulates contemporary students because it shows them not only a new doctrine but also a new category, not only a new idea but also a new meaning of the word “idea”. They feel like prisoners in the “cave” as they begin to emerge from their comfortable little world of shadows into an alarmingly larger world outside. It is a new metaphysics for them, a new answer to the question “What kind of things are real; what does ‘real’ mean?” They are waking up from the sleep in the cave, to the dream of the Wholeness.

Nearly everyone in our culture believes that concrete, individual, material things, like rocks and tigers, are real. (Idealists do not). Most also believe that there is also another kind of reality, not made of matter: minds, souls, selves, spirits, egos. (Materialists do not).

So most people in our culture recognize two kinds of reality, two metaphysical categories: objective matter and subjective spirit, or mind. But Plato offers them a third (or fifth) category, which is objective (unlike minds): they are objects of thought. But they are not material, spatial, or even temporal objects. For instance, in addition to tigers (material objects) and our subjective minds with their their ideas of tigers, there is also Tigerness, the essence of tigers. In addition to rocks there is Rockiness. In addition to good swords and good lawyers and good arguments, there is Goodness itself – not just our ideas of goodness, but the true, objective, eternal, universal, unchangeable essence of goodness itself, which is dimly reflected or shared (“participated in”) in different ways by good swords and good lawyers and good arguments, and by our ideas of them.

Platonic ideas are not things. But they are objectively real. They are Ideas but not our ideas, which change and err. They are the real truths that measure our ideas as erring or true. We usually think of ideas as dependent on minds, as acts of minds, so Platonic Ideas require a capital I; they are neither matter nor mind but a third category of reality. They are real ideals, objective standards.

For instance, when we compare two lines drawn by an artist and judge that one is straighter than the other, we are using a standard: the ideal line, the perfectly straight line. No one has ever seen that. Whatever we can see must reflect light, which requires a molecular structure, and that requires three-dimensional matter. But a line is one-dimensional. It is not a physical thing. But it is not a mere subjective idea in our minds either. As Kreeft says: “It judges our minds”. One mind can be wrong and another right about what a straight line is, or about whether line A or line B is straighter. Straightness, or the Idea of the straight line, is objective to our minds. It is the perfect standard both for our minds´ ideas, and for material things, both of which are only more or less straight. But straightness itself is not more or less straight.

All material things are in time and space. All subjective ideas are in time too, though they are not in space. It takes time to think as well as to breath. Platonic Ideas are neither in space nor in time. They are unchangeable, birthless, and deathless.

Kreeft asks: “If they exist, where are they? Obviously not anywhere in space, nor in our minds, but in what? Where is their metaphysical home?” I have called this metaphysical home the great vision, the unity of the universal images in time, and I arrived at the double-aspect theory of consciousness, which I claim is one and the same as the Wholeness, or the undescribable reality itself.

Kreeft says that Plato never took the next step; he never said these perfect, unchangeable Ideas must exist in a perfect, unchangeable Mind. When Christianity entered Greek culture, it supplied the metaphysical house for Plato´s Ideas: the mind of God, the Word of God, the Logos. And according to the central, essential claim of Christianity, the Word of God is also the Son of God, a divine Person who became incarnate as Jesus Christ, taking a finite, material, mortal human nature.

These Platonic Ideas vastly expand our vision of what is real by adding the world outside the sleeping cave, the Mind of God, the realm of Ideas, and also by transforming this material world into a world of signs, not just things. If Plato is right, everything we see is a shadow, copy, image, imitation, or sign of something unseen. We saw this in the beginning of the Metaphysics chapter: the shattered images of the great vision are signs and signals from Eternity.

I have used an expression from Zen Buddhism: my teaching is a finger pointing at the Moon, don´t mistake the finger for the moon. The finger is the sign, and the angels can see what the finger points at, but we can´t. Our science can´t explore the world of Heavenly archetypes, only the world of material copies. But Kreeft says that philosophy can know that His world is a copy of another; philosophy can know that this world is a finger, a sign. In other words, we spiritual microorganisms are less than angels but more than scientists. We are philosophers.

Kreeft says, and I agree, that the human experience that helps us best understand Plato´s Theory of Ideas is the experience of artistic creativity. Art is very different from science in that it creates worlds; it creates meaning and beauty and forms and structures and natures, while science discovers them. In science, the world is the standard for our ideas about it. If we believe the earth is flat, we are wrong. But in art, it is the reverse: the artist´s ideas are the standard for the world he creates. For example, in Tolkien´s world, Elves are tall and formidable; in Shakespeare´s world, they are tiny and cute. In art, the world conforms to the creative idea; in science, the idea conforms to the world. Truth in science is the reverse of truth in art. If God created the universe, all science is reading God´s art.

Heliocentrism, evolution, and relativity are true ideas only of they conform the scientist´s mind to the objective physical world; but this world is truly heliocentric, evolutionary, and relative only if it conforms to the divine Idea (The Great Vision) and design for it. And everything does that except man. Only in man is there a gap between God´s eternal design and temporal fact. According to Kreeft the word for this gap is “sin”.

It is because we can look at the things in the universe in this Platonic way that we can rank them. For example, one lion can seem truer, more leonine, than another (say, a weak, scruffy, cowardly lion). We say, “He´s a true man”, or “She´s a real woman”, and that another is false, fake, or inauthentic.

Now, in a work of fiction, such as The Lord of the Rings, the characters and creatures and landscapes and histories can seem either “fake” (unbelievable, artificial, contrived, inauthentic) or “real” (believable, natural, convincing, authentic), not by conforming to the physical world (except in purely realistic or naturalistic fiction) but by conforming to Platonic Ideas. For instance, Macbeth´s three witches are truer, witchier witches than cartoon withches are; and Tolkien´s Elves are more real, more elvish than any other writer´s elves have ever been. We can´t help believing in them. Now, why is that? There are no physical Elves in this world (although most of the citizens of Iceland would disagree with that). So how do we know Tolkien´s Elves are more real? We must know the Platonic Idea of Elves, or Elvishness, to be able to use it to compare Tolkien with Shakespeare, for example, and find Shakespaere “elvishly challenged”.

Take kingship, Kreeft suggests. “Though they do not have kings in America, or want them, their unconscious mind both has them and wants them. They all know what a true king is, a real king, an archetypal king. He is not a mere politician or soldier. Something in Americans longs to give him their loyalty and fealty and service and obedience. He is lost but longed for and will some day return, like Arthur. In The Lord of the Rings, Arthur´s name is ‘Aragorn’. When we read The Lord of the Rings, he returns to his throne in our minds. He was always there; The Lord of the Rings only brings him back into our consciousness from the tomb of the unconscious, where he was sleeping.

“Take Hobbits. Why do they strike us as ‘real’? Where are they? In the mind God; and Tolkien knows the Hobbit corner of that mind better than anyone else. Hobbits are not allegories of English farmers, any more than Elves are allegories of Finnish minstrels, or Orcs of Nazi soldiers. They are real because they resemble not physical things or someone´s opinions, but Platonic Ideas.”

In The Lord of the Rings everything seems to be more itself, more Platonic. The earth is more earthy, nature is more natural, the history is more historical, the genealogies more genealogical, the tragedy more tragic, the joy more joyful, the caverns more cavernous, the forests more forestry, and the heroes more heroic. (That is not to say they are more one-dimensional, unflawed, and untempted.)

Indeed, the four forests mentioned in The Lord of the Rings have more character, more identity than most human characters in most novels. You could not possible confuse the Old Forest, Lothlorien, Fangorn, and Mirkwood (mentioned in The Lord of the Rings but described in The Hobbit) with each other. If you found yourself in any one of them, you would instantly know which. When we read The Lord of the Rings, why do these forests seem “real” or “true”? Why do we believe in them? Not because they are like the forests we have walked through in this world, but because the forests we have walked through in this world were a little like them. Tolkien´s forests do not remind us of ours; ours remind us of them. I know this. I´m so privileged to live in Rold Forest in Denmark, and I often post pictures on Facebook from my walks through it. The comments often compare what I have photographed with The Lord of the Rings.

And this is true of nearly everything in The Lord of the Rings. That is one reason why so many inanimate things have names (e.g., swords or horns): because they have individual personalities. The winding Horn of Boromir, the great Horn of Helm, the shrill fire-alarm Horn of Buckland, and the horns the Hobbits use to rouse the Shire at the end are all unforgettable. We have heard their sounds in our hearts, even if we have never heard them in our ears.

“Take the sea”, Kreeft continues. “To the unimaginative, unpoetic reductionist, the ‘trousered ape’, it is just trillions of tons of H2O laced with NaC1. But to the poet and the seer, in other worlds, the normal human being, it is more; it is more like an archetype, and it has inspired longing and desire and exaltation and sadness for millenia. The eye of the poet sees less clearly, but sees farther than the eye of the scientist”.


“Platonic Ideas in Tolkien´s literary examples move you more than my abstract philosophical explanation of Plato´s Ideas. This is the stragety of the storyteller: to creep past the “watchful dragons” that guard the conscious reason that excludes these things as unbelievable; to open the back door of the heart when the front door of the mind is locked; to appeal to the wiser, deeper, unconscious mind, and the universal images in time. A great mythmaker awakens the longing for these Platonic archetypes, which are buried deep in human knowledge, through using a magic language: the language of myth.”

Go back to main book:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.